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Portland, O r e g o k
by Joyce Carol Oates
edited by Raymond Soulard, Jr.
& Kassandra Soulard
The Witness, 1984
by Joyce Carol Oates
Burning Man Books is
an imprint of
2442 NW Market Street-#363
Seattle, Washington 98107
This volume was composed
in the AGaramond font
in PageMaker 7.0 on the
Macintosh G4 computer
When you were young,
and there seemed no doors to daylight .
My father lies on top of the bedspread, the pillows propped
up crooked behind him, the seashell ashtray on his chest,
smoking, leafing through the Bible, staring smiling out the
window. "The Holy Ghost has departed me," he sometimes says. I am
running light as air across the roofs on Main Street. Threading my way
through the flapping laundry, around the television antennae. One of
the neighbor women calls out to me. Be careful, you're going to trip
yourself and fall, you're going to hurt yourself, but already I'm a mile
away, five miles away, running so lightly I only need to come to earth to
bounce up again, springy, my toes like a monkey's toes, my hair flying.
You don't know what you're saying, my mother tells me. Her
eyes are puffy from crying. Her lips look chapped — all the lipstick has
been wiped off. You're dreaming with your eyes open: you're a liar.
I was running away from home but not for the first time. I had taken
$3.87 from the secret place in my mother's stockings-and-underwear
drawer in the bureau. Beneath the sheet of old Christmas wrapping
paper. I was running, flying, galloping. No one could catch me. No one
saw me. Mrs. Howard hanging her laundry, old sour-breathed Mr.
Ledbetter on the first floor landing, Whoa, horsey! Where are you going
so fast? Do you live in this building?
Why do they always talk in loud joking voices. And make swipes
at my hair because of the curls. But I have learned to duck and keep on
running. . . .
You tell such lies, my sister Irene says. But of course she's jealous.
It is many years ago, too many to calculate. Below Waterman Park where
you're not supposed to go alone the man with the coat slung over his
shoulder is speaking softly and angrily to the woman in the peasant
blouse, but I can't hear, I have pressed the palms of my hands against
my ears. I am not to blame, I am only eleven years old.
It is the last summer we will be living above Harders Shoes on
Main Street, Main Street at the corner of Mohigan, a few weeks before
the fire, before everything is changed. "What is going to happen?" my
mother's sister from Trenton asked. "He isn't dangerous, is he? — I mean,
you or the girls — " My mother didn't answer at first. Maybe she knew I
was listening behind the door. Then she made a sound I couldn't decipher,
The Witness • 5
a laugh, a thin tired snorting kind of laugh. She said: "Not the girls, he's
crazy about the girls."
I am running away from them, from the apartment on Main
Street. Irene and me sharing a bed, Momma on the sofa in the living
room, my father in the "large" bedroom. Was he dangerous? No. Yes
maybe. Of course not. Sometimes love for us brimmed in his eyes.
Sometimes he had to wipe at his eyes, ashamed, with the back of his
I am running away to Waterman Park. My father shuffles the
cards for a game of gin rummy, then changes his mind, lets the cards fall
onto the floor, a cascade like water falling, with almost no sound. He
isn't drunk but he isn't friendly right now. His feet are bare and bluish-
white and the nail of the big toe on the injured foot is that queer plum
color, and grown very thick: maybe a quarter-inch thick.
He reaches for the Bible, he reaches for a fresh pack of cigarettes.
He says: "Get out of here. Shut the door. I've had enough of
you spying on me — all of you." His voice is low and murmuring, he
doesn't sound angry. He never does.
It is an afternoon in late August. Warm muggy motionless air. I am
running up the dim-lit stairs to the room, the three bills and the coins
are in my pocket, no one will know where I've gone. My mother is at
work, my sister is at a friend's house, my father is lying on top of the
bedspread, smiling, not smiling, staring out the window. The bedspread
is scorched in several places from his cigarettes.
I slam outside, letting the door strike against the asphalt siding,
not taking time to close it. The tarry roof is quivering with heat. It is
our last summer. The four-room apartment above the shoe store. The
sandstone building. Main Street at Mohigan. Momma worked days at
the hospital out East End Avenue, Irene was fourteen and in tenth grade
at the high school. My father went out sometimes in the evening. Then
he wouldn't come home until two or three in the morning, or much
later, eight o'clock, but we wouldn't see him, he'd go into the bathroom
and lock the door. But most of the time he didn't go out. They were
quarreling once and I overheard my mother say, Why don't you leave,
then, go back to Isle Royale and live alone the rest of your life — go to
Alaska for Christ's sake, and my father said without raising his voice:
6 • Joyce Carol Oates
Where? Where can I go? I'm here. I'm in my skin. Here. This is it.
He is lying against the crooked pillows, there are tufts of dark
hair on the joints of his toes, the air in the bedroom is stale and smells
of tobacco smoke, whisky, sweat, unwashed clothes. The last time it
rained, my father didn't close the window, so the mattress got soaked
and the wallpaper got stained but the air was fresh. What does it mean,
stupid Irene asked, — the Holy Ghost "departed"? What does it mean?
Is it something like God, or Jesus Christ — ? Will we be all right?
I am running across the roof of our building. Running, flying,
my arms outstretched. No one can catch me. No one can see me. A
woman is hanging up laundry in the heat, clothespins and nylon cord
and a wicker basket filled with damp clothes, she calls after me but I
don't hear, I am already past the chimneys, jumping across to the next
building, no one knows my name. One building and then another and
another. The air is wavy with heat. There are expanses of soft tar. There
are plyboard strips to walk on. Loose bricks, stacks of asphalt siding,
beer cans, yellowed newspapers. Last spring a boy held me out over the
edge of the roof, he wanted to make me cry but I wouldn't, he wanted
to make me beg him but I wouldn't, and afterward when they let me go
and I ran I heard him say, She runs like a deer — which makes me proud.
A deer or a light-footed horse or a cheetah. Running springing up into
the air. My hair flying, my arms outstretched. You're dreaming with
your eyes open, my mother says. But I'm not asleep. I'm not in bed. It's
daytime and I'm running across the roofs above Main Street, jumping
six feet at a stretch, ten feet, twelve, high up into the air, and when I
come down it doesn't hurt my feet, I feel nothing at all, no more than a
deer or a horse or a cheetah would, not looking to the left or right.
Once some of us climbed down the fire escape here and went
into an opened window into a corridor, but we couldn't figure out where
we were. An old fat woman in a bathrobe chased us back out. You're the
ones, she said, I'm going to call the police, but we climbed back out and
ran across the roof laughing. We didn't take anything. But we were
blamed. Irene told my mother. Some kids had stolen somebody's mail
including a check, so we were blamed but it wasn't our fault, I didn't
even know who had done it. We should burn the building down, I said.
The whole damn row of buildings down. See how they like it then.
I am eleven years old, I have stopped growing, the school nurse
The Witness • 7
says I must bruise easily. What are these marks on the backs of your
legs? And I was so ashamed, when the nurse made us all take off our
shoes and socks, and my feet weren't clean. Don't cry, one of the girls
said. But I wasn't crying.
Clothespoles and television antennae and pigeons, and pigeon
droppings all over. Which is why you can't run up here barefoot. That,
and the hot tar. The hot asphalt. It makes me dizzy to look over the
edge, the girls are always saying, but we're only five floors up, the
buildings along Main Street aren't very high, nothing like the Wolcott
Building where we played in the elevators: fifteen floors not counting
the basements. Is someone calling after me? Is it Momma shouting my
name? I am running downstairs now, in the dark. I know which building
this is, at the far end of the block, I'll come out on the street between
the La Mode Women's Fashions and Dutch Boy Paint & Paper.
Whoa, little horsey! old Mr. Ledbetter says.
Don't you touch me, I whisper. And duck under his arm.
Why did I go all the way out to Waterman Park, they will ask me
afterward. Was I crazy, to take the bus three miles alone, to go out there
by myself. . . . The woman stumbling in the grass, in the high grass
along the canal bank, wasn't anyone I knew. I really didn't look. I shut
my eyes, I pressed my hands against my ears. She was Momma's age
maybe. She had hair the color of Aunt June's — dark brown that looked
maroon, like she'd dunked it in purple ink. The red scarf around her
neck was one of those filmy chiffon scarfs Irene bought at Woolworth's.
You tied them around your neck just for the looks of it. Or around your
head if your hair was up in curlers.
Once when they were fighting and Irene was at the roller rink
with her boy friend I ran away to my uncle's and aunt's house across
town — that was a long time ago, the summer before. My aunt hid me
in the bathroom where my little cousins couldn't peek at me. She washed
my face, and brushed my hair except for the snarls, and hugged me, and
said not to cry. She asked about my father. Wasn't he seeing that doctor
any more, wasn't he seeing any doctor? She asked about my mother —
"Why doesn't she ever give me a call? I miss her" — but I didn't know
how to answer. I told her I wanted to live at her house. I wasn't going
back home. I made her promise not to telephone my mother and say I
8 • Joyce Carol Oates
She let me make popcorn for myself and my little cousins. I
melted butter in a tin measuring cup on the stove. But I shook too
much salt on the popcorn — I wasn't used to her salt shaker.
She promised not to call my mother but she must have called
because my mother and father both came to get me, in a car borrowed
from the people who lived next door. I ran to hide under the stairs. I
wasn't crying but I was afraid. When they pulled me out I told Aunt
June I hated her and wished she was dead. So Momma slapped me. I
knew she would slap me. I didn't care, I wasn't crying. I wish I could
close my eyes and see Aunt June's face but I can't. I mean, the way she
was then. So many years ago. The house on Ingleside Avenue, the red-
brick fake siding, my youngest cousin still in diapers. She wasn't as pretty
as my mother. But she was pretty. She was just a young woman, wasn't
she? — maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven years old. A mole on her cheek,
the maroon-gleaming hair in a pageboy, crimson lipstick, her eyebrows
penciled in like Elizabeth Taylor's — too heavy and dark for her narrow
face. I can't see her now. There isn't any young woman there. I open my
eyes and see an angry old woman staring right through me. Her scalp
shows through her thin white hair and her eyes are badly bloodshot.
She can't talk now because of the throat cancer — because of the operation.
She's angry at me because I am still alive. Because I told her I hated her
that day, and wished she was dead. But I never meant it. God will forgive
me. Unless God is angry too.
I am running inside the store windows, one after another after another.
And in the windows of cars parked at the curb. The lady shoppers are
annoyed with me but I don't pay any attention to them, I don't even
look at them, no one knows my name. The window of the jewelry store,
and the window of the discount drug store, and the long wide windows
of Woolworth's, a shadow-girl running, weightless, quick as a deer. My
father says it's no point in going back to Isle Royale to work for the
National Parks Service, it's no point going back to visit my grandparents
in the northern peninsula, or looking for a job, or taking up his church
work again (after he was discharged from the hospital he'd gone around
door-to-door with the Bible for a few months but I don't know all that
happened — Momma won't tell us): it's no point going anywhere because
The Witness • 9
all spots are the same identical spot in God's mind and he was perfectly
happy where he was. But I wanted to take the bus out to Waterman
Park because I loved it there. Because I was so happy the times we went
Except once. But I didn't tell anyone.
That time, at the Jaycees' picnic, Momma and Aunt June took
us all out. I won first prize in the ten-to-twelve-year-old foot race, and
was given a silver dollar, and a boy named Pat I knew from school, he
was in the seventh grade, asked me if he could see it. He said he'd never
seen a real silver dollar before. So I showed it to him. Can I hold it? he
said. I didn't want to give it to him, I said, Why? — you can see it. No,
he said, coming closer, I just want to hold it for a second. I had it in my
hand. Come on, he said, let's see, and I didn't want to but I held it up,
and he snatched it out of my fingers and ran away behind the
refreshment-and-restrooms building with the little tower on top. I cried
but didn't tell anyone, not even Irene. I told her I lost the silver dollar.
"Then that's double bad luck," she said.
My father says he's proud of his little girl. Proud of both his
little girls. But he doesn't want to talk because his head starts to ache
and because there isn't anything to say he hasn't said already. Also the
light hurts his eyes. Also my voice hurts his ears. "If I had it in me to
love anyone I would love you," he says, shaking his cigarette ash in the
ashtray, "but you know the Holy Ghost saw fit to depart from me leaving
just this husk and whited sepulchre, and I can't lift a finger in rebellion.
'The Spirit bloweth where it will.' Do you know what that means? That
My mother begins to cry. Short ugly sobs like hiccups. My father turns
away as if the sight disgusts him. But he doesn't say anything. He isn't
angry. He never gets angry any longer.
"I don't want to taste blood," he says. "Not ever again."
The black bus driver doesn't seem to think it's strange that I have climbed
up into the bus by myself, dropped two nickels into the fare box, gone
to sit by one of the windows at the rear of the bus. My heart is beating
like crazy. There is a queer sensation in the pit of my stomach. To be
riding the bus alone! Out to the park alone! But I don't have my bathing
10 • Joyce Carol Oates
suit. I won't be able to swim in the pool. Two Sundays before, Irene and
I went out with a carload of kids, the mother of one of Irene's girl friends
drove us out, we swam all afternoon in the pool and had a picnic lunch
before coming back home. But now I'm alone. Now I'm going to be
alone for the rest of my life.
The seashell ashtray is a souvenir of Tampa, Florida. At its center a
miniature mermaid has been fashioned partly out of creamy pink shells,
her coiled fish tail glittering prettily, her blue eyes blank and staring.
She has seaweed hair that hides her breasts. She is very shapely. But no
one admires her any longer, she's been discolored with tobacco, ashes,
grime from my father's fingers. No one sees her any longer.
The ashtray sits on my father's chest or abdomen, rising gently,
falling. Gradually it becomes filled with ashes and then the ashes are
dumped into a wastebasket. I can see my father's crinkly chest hair
through his undershirt, curly-red going gray. And under his arms. I can
remember how his hair used to grow close about his temples, and in
warm weather it would curl damp on his forehead. But now he is going
bald. His eyes are a strange pale pebble-color, not blue and not gray, but
lighter than his skin. Why is his forehead so creased? — and the cheeks
too. He is always thinking. He frowns, makes faces, runs his nicotine-
stained forefinger hard across his front teeth. "I don't trust myself out
there," he has said. He means out the window, out on the street.
Anywhere outside. "I don't want to taste blood ever again."
He smokes Camels. The bed and the floor are littered with
cellophane wrappers and those little red cellophane strips. The brand of
whisky varies, why can't I remember the labels on the bottles, why are
they so much less distinct than the cigarettes . . . . ?
Sometimes we play gin rummy for pennies but whoever wins
has to put the pennies back in the "kitty" — in a cigar box. Sometimes
we play checkers, Parcheesi, or one of the games with dice that Irene is
crazy about. The three of us shaking the dice in a little black cardboard
cup that got soft and damp from our hands, hooting with laughter,
exclaiming, while rain hammered against the window a few feet from
the bed, and the air in the room was close and stale and cozy and secret.
Only the three of us. My mother never played even when she wasn't at
The Witness • 11
My father had a disability pension but something had gone
wrong, or hadn't been completed, so the checks never came. My father
and mother quarreled about this but my father explained to Irene and
me that it was better to go without than to crawl. "They want to make
a man crawl," he said. "But the Spirit of the Lord is infused with too
much pride for that." So he lies on top of the bedspread smoking his
cigarettes and drinking his whisky, at peace. Sometimes he will flick
through the newspaper or something I bring home from school, but
mainly he reads the Bible. He reads a verse or a page at a time, then leafs
through to another section and reads there, his lips working, his forehead
sharply creased. Anything he discovers in the Bible is important. But
then it is important too to close the book, and open it again at another
place, and read any verse his eye happens upon. It is the most important
thing in life. It is life. But all the verses are of equal importance.
What is going to happen? Momma's older sister from Trenton
I don't know, Momma said.
I mean — isn't he dangerous? If he was arrested for trying to kill
that guy, whoever it was —
That won't happen again, Momma said.
How do you know it won't happen again?
Because it won't.
How do you know, for Christ's sake?
I don't know, Momma said. Go ask him yourself.
He might hurt you or the girls —
Not the girls, Momma said flatly. He's crazy about the girls.
There are a half-dozen scorch marks on the bedspread, a long
narrow one on the pillow case. My father says he wasn't asleep but
somehow the cigarette slipped from his fingers. He wasn't asleep, the
light was on, he'd been studying the Bible. Once at four in the morning
he had to beat out a little fire with his hands and he burnt himself so
that tears ran down his cheeks from the pain, and my mother screamed
at him, screamed and yanked and pulled at the bedclothes, tearing the
sheets off the bed, throwing the pillows on the floor. Irene was too
frightened to see what was wrong, she just lay there not moving in bed,
but I ran out in my nightgown, and there was my mother sobbing and
my father with his hands cupped in a strange way, the fingers bent like
12 • Joyce Carol Oates
claws, trying to comfort her. "It wasn't anything," he said. "It was just
an accident. Calm down. Calm down. God only meant it as a warning."
At Waterman Park there is sometimes a crippled man who isn't a beggar,
a man with funny mottled skin, nothing but stumps for thighs, rolling
himself around on a wooden platform with skate wheels attached. He
wears gloves so his hands won't be hurt. I never look at him. My eyes
dart to him but then lift over his head. Momma says it's rude to stare at
a cripple but that isn't why I don't look at him.
This afternoon he's here — pushing himself on his little wooden
platform around the wading pool where the small children are splashing
and trying to swim. His shoulder and arm muscles are all bunched, his
neck is thick as my father's, in spite of the heat he is wearing a felt cap.
He pushes himself slowly along the pavement. His movements are precise
and rhythmic and unhurried. If you make the mistake of looking into
his face you see that one of the eyes is milky and staring off into the air.
But the other eye is fixed onto you.
Why did you go out to Waterman Park alone, they will ask. All
the way out there alone. You little brat. You liar.
Were you testing God's love for you, my father will ask. But you
should know better. You should know that He loves you in any case.
You can't injure His love. You can't increase it. You can't even test it.
I am running through the sloshing chlorinated water at the
shallow end of the swimming pool, making my way around the other
children. I am running barefoot up to my knees in the water, giggling as
if someone is chasing me. The skirt of my dress is wet, my underpants
are splashed. I want to laugh and shout and scream and kick, pummeling
my arms, making a windmill of my arms. I collide with a little girl of six
or seven and her head is dunked underwater but it isn't my fault, I keep
on running. Someone shouts behind me but I keep on running, waving
my arms, squealing as if I am being chased.
I am swinging on one of the swings, kicking myself higher,
higher. The sky is empty and very blue. I am stretching my legs as straight
as they will go. No one is pushing me. No one calls out to warn me that
I am going too high, that I'm being reckless. Suppose I jump off — and
let the swing fly backward? — suppose it strikes the boy swinging beside
me? That happened once when I was a little girl. My grandfather was
The Witness • 13
pushing me then and he scolded me. But now no one is watching, no
one knows where I am. I can jump off the swing and let it fly back, I can
do anything I want.
My head is ringing, my throat feels very dry. I am climbing up
the slide, clambering up like a monkey, clowning around. At the top I
am going to jump right off. I've done it before, it isn't dangerous, but
the soles of my feet will tingle. I don't want to lose my balance and fall
by accident. I feel lightheaded all of a sudden. So I go down the slide
the way you're supposed to, pushing myself down, the hot metal makes
my skin stick, I hear myself whimpering aloud in pain, it's a mistake to
be here, something is going to happen, I am going to be punished. . . .
Then I'm safe on the ground again, springing up on my heels. I haven't
been burnt. I don't give a damn what happens.
"Moving your hand, see: this is God," my father says, raising
his hand slowly in front of his face. "But then — " and here he whips his
head around and pretends to be spying on his other hand, halfway behind
his back. " — here's God too. All sides. All points. Do you know what
that means?" He pauses to look at me. His smile is gentle. " That means
The ice cream cone is melting, chocolate ice cream running
down my forearm to my elbow. It's very sweet but hasn't any taste. My
throat is aching from all the dust. Suddenly I am angry — suddenly I
feel sick to my stomach. I let the ice cream cone drop onto the grass.
Something is wrong but I don't know what it is. I don't know how to
I am very excited, but I don't know where to run. I can run and
run and run. I'll never get tired or hungry, I can run forever. Jumping
into the air, leaping, landing on my toes and springing up again, who
will stop me? — who knows where I am? Momma wiped her eyes with
her knuckles and pushed past me, she didn't care that I was peeking in
on them, she didn't scold. Behind her my father was saying, "I love you,
you know that. I love you first last and always." He spoke quietly, he
never raises his voice.
Can you fall asleep with your eyes open? I wonder. I have been
standing staring at some pigeons picking in the garbage. Five, six, seven
of them. Beautiful wings, tail feathers. Pebble-colored eyes. The beaks
picking, striking, never making a mistake. But if one pigeon comes too
14 • Joyce Carol Oates
close to another it's chased away. The pigeons are actually very angry —
you wouldn't want them to peck at your outstretched hand. You wouldn't
want them to peck at your eyes.
Can you see things when you're awake? I wonder. Like dreams.
Like wisps and bits of dreams. But with your eyes open.
There is a snapshot in blurred blazing color of my father and a
red fox, taken up at Isle Royale on the lake, when he worked for the
government for eight months. My father is wearing a blue nylon
Windbreaker and a wool cap, he's squatting, grinning at the camera,
and the fox is only a few yards away, his slender snout turned three-
quarters toward my father. It looks as if the fox is grinning too. My
father is very handsome but the visor of the cap cuts across his eyes
making a dark shadow. Whoever took the picture faced the sun too
directly, the scene is over-exposed, blazing with light. "Your father had
to get away for a while but it doesn't mean he stopped loving us," Momma
explained. She explained this to everyone she met.
The program my father was hired for had something to do with
charting the movements and patterns of behavior of timber wolves.
Whether their population was stable or not. Whether their prey — deer,
moose, rabbits — was stable. At first he loved the work because of the
solitude, the silence, for weeks on end. Then the work began to sicken
him: he had to examine the part-devoured carcasses of animals, he had
to take photographs, keep records. He still limped from the accident at
the foundry and the cold weather — sometimes it was 30° below zero,
not counting the wind-chill — made the injury worse. So he came home.
"I never stopped loving you," he said. "Did you stop loving me?"
I can hear the crippled man grunt as he pulls himself along on
his wooden platform, but I don't look up. If I don't see him he can't see
me. The pigeons are still pecking in the garbage, squabbling over a hot-
dog bun. Rushing at one another with their wings outstretched. Is it
still the same time, hasn't anything changed? — the sun will never move
in the sky.
Dear God I am so afraid of what is going to happen. Dear God
forgive me my sins. Help me to be a good girl.
Momma keeps saying: "Things are getting better now, the worst
Momma keeps saying, pouring some whisky for herself while
The Witness • 15
she's talking on the telephone: "He needs me. He loves me. I love
him. It isn't the way you think."
A boy of about seventeen is crouched in the rose garden, taking
photographs of a bride and her new husband, everyone is smiling,
laughing, calling out, maybe they're a little drunk. If I was behind the
married couple I could get in the picture but I'm on the wrong side,
behind the photographer, peeking through a trellis. There are five middle-
aged women in the wedding party, all dressed up, corsages on their
shoulders, hats with pretty straw brims, but only three men. No one
pays any attention to me. The bride in her long white beautiful dress,
with her lace veil hanging down over her back, smiles toward me but
doesn't see me. I can roll my eyes and stick out my tongue like I'm
choking, it won't make any difference.
I am a snorting horse, a moose with its head lowered, galloping
along the path, kicking up gravel. The hell with them staring at me — I
don't give a damn. The North Pole is in one direction, the Equator in
another, but there isn't anywhere to go that isn't God.
Now I am running along the edge of the park, an angry little
heart is beating in the center of my forehead. You aren't supposed to
climb down, the signs say Warning, pebbles and rocks and hunks of
dried mud are coming loose, you can hurt yourself falling, my hand is
scraped and bleeding a little but there isn't much pain, the sensation is
mainly numb, the dust will clot the bleeding and make it stop. I am
singing at the top of my lungs. Singing and laughing. I will never go
back home again: I will live in the park forever.
Did you stop loving me? someone whispers. . . . loving me,
I am all hooves and wings and flashing antlers. Scaly rippling
Then suddenly I see them: a man and a woman down by the
canal: but I've seen them before, those two, on the canal bank in the
high grass, and there isn't anything I can do to stop it.
The man is jerking the woman along, his fingers are closed around her
bare upper arm. She is already crying. She shouldn't cry, it makes him
all the more angry, they don't like tears. I know he's going to kill her but
I can't get away. I can't stop it.
16 • Joyce Carol Oates
His blue coat is slung over his right shoulder, his trousers are
streaked with dust. He is wearing a necktie made of some shiny silvery
material. His hair is no color at all — trimmed short — standing up stiff
and straight as a brush. He has a pig's snout, his face is red and mottled.
His voice isn't raised but you can tell he's very angry.
The woman isn't pretty. Her lips are too thick and blubbery
She has a double chin that wobbles as he pulls her along, I can't stand to
look at her, hair dyed maroon and teased out around her head like straw,
filmy red scarf around her neck, high heels that make her stagger in the
grass. She is wearing one of those off-the-shoulder blouses with the
elastic neck, they're in Sears' window, Mexican or Spanish they're
supposed to be, and a red cotton skirt with a black elastic belt, cinching
her waist in tight so that her fat hips bulge, and her fat breasts. When
the worst of it begins I am crouched down hiding, my eyes are shut
tight and my hands are pressed over my ears. I don't hear her screaming,
I don't hear the thuds, the blows. I don't hear a thing.
I hadn't been asleep. But when I opened my eyes I was in the park again,
in the rose garden again, crouching behind the trellis. It was still daylight.
Maybe no time had passed. Children were still playing in the pool, my
head felt very strange but I wasn't bleeding anywhere so maybe everything
was all right. The roses were very beautiful, I hadn't looked at them
before. The wedding party had gone.
I knew it was later because I was so hungry. The sun had shifted
in the sky.
I started crying and couldn't stop.
A woman in yellow shorts came by, another woman joined her,
a patrolman, a small staring crowd. My knees had given out and I was
sitting on the grass. I was afraid of wetting myself and soiling my
underpants but I couldn't stop crying. The woman was lying on her
back, her skirt was pulled up, her thick pale lardy flesh exposed. One
high-heeled shoe had been twisted off her foot but the strap was still
attached to her ankle. I didn't see any blood. I didn't hear anything. The
man's necktie had flapped over his shoulder as he ran away but I didn't
really see it, I wasn't watching. I was crouched down behind a pile of
rocks hiding with my hands pressed against my ears. My heart beat so
hard in my chest I knew it was going to burst.
The Witness • 17
They were asking me what was wrong but I couldn't answer.
Was I sick? Had I hurt myself? Had someone hurt me? I couldn't get my
breath to answer. Had I fallen off the slide? A woman told the patrolman
she had seen me on the playground earlier, I had been acting "strangely."
It was her opinion that I was lost. More people drifted by. Children
staring. Was I lost? Where were my parents? Were they at the park?
What was my name?
I was shivering so hard the policeman took a beach towel from
one of the women and wrapped it around me. He said I'd be all right
now, nothing bad would happen. But my teeth kept chattering. I couldn't
get my breath.
It's hysteria, the policeman said, you see it all the time. He wore
sunglasses with very dark green lenses. His voice was kindly, he wasn't
In the ambulance going to the hospital I did soil my underpants.
But nobody said a word about it afterward.
After the accident at the foundry when two men on my father's shift
were killed, and my father was hospitalized, the "great silence" came
over him more and more often.
He would be lying in bed. Or walking with a cane along the
corridor. Or joking with the nurses. Or staring out the window over the
parking lot. ("Sometimes it was the way the sunlight flashed on a
windshield: simple as that," he says.) There would be a pressure in his
ears, and a deafening roar, and then silence. Just — silence.
He couldn't hear anything. He couldn't swallow or blink.
Nothing had changed around him but it was all at a distance because he
was in God's mind. He could hear God's thoughts, which were identical
with his own. "There is the first half of my life," he says, "and then the
second. I'm in the second now. I was in it all the time but I didn't know.
God had been with me all the time but I didn't know. You think you're
alone — that makes you happy when you're a kid — I mean, you can get
away with anything, do anything, right? But God is with you all the
time. You're not free. Even the thought of it, being free, it's God's thought
in your head. Whatever you think or do, God has got there first. So you
can't make mistakes. Even the warnings He sends you aren't mistakes."
Sometimes when it snows — when it has been snowing for days
18 • Joyce Carol Oates
on end, as it has this winter — I stand at the window and hear the silence
all around me. I know it will swallow me up someday the way it did my
But even this thought — isn't it God's? Of course it is.
In the hospital I started to tell them about the woman by the canal,
what the man had done to her, but my words were garbled and I couldn't
get my breath. If I closed my eyes I could see her but when I opened
them I couldn't remember what I was saying. There was blood on the
lower part of her jaw. There was blood, a widening circle of blood, on
He had killed her. Then he'd run away. But not light on his feet,
not leaping and prancing. He hadn't any hooves or wings. The blood
had splashed onto his shirt. I hated them both — they were so ugly.
"You never saw anything," my mother tells me, whispering,
leaning over the bed, giving me a secret shake. "You mind your own
Someone was sent out to search by the canal but of course there
wasn't any body, there wasn't any evidence of blood or struggle. A single
high-heeled shoe was found in the grass.
"She makes things up," my mother says, not looking at me.
Later, after a woman was reported missing, they dragged the
canal but never found any body. By then I was back home (I'd only
been in the hospital overnight, in the children's ward), by then school
"You just tell them you don't remember," my mother says. "Tell
them you don't know. Anyway you made it all up — didn't you?" My
father's door has been closed against me for a long time. If I press my ear
against it I can hear him singing and humming to himself, sometimes
Irene and one of her girl friends are in there with him, playing gin
rummy, or shaking the dice until they rattle in the old cardboard cup.
The three of them laugh together, I think they must want me to hear.
"Anyway you made it up," my mother says, lighting a cigarette, staring
at me, "didn't you?"
She has never said anything about the $3.87 from her bureau
drawer. Which means I didn't take it — which means that nothing has
happened. But my father's door is closed against me for eleven days. I
The Witness • 19
am chipping at the plaster in the wall beside my bed with a safety pin,
to mark each day
20 • Joyce Carol Oates